"Star Wars: Episode One--The Phantom Menace" as Personel Mythology

By Jonathan Young

Once again, an installment of the Star Wars series has become a movie event of galactic proportions. As everyone must know, Episode One—The Phantom Menace is a flashback to thirty years before the original Star Wars. The spiritual underpinnings and mythic dimensions of the series have been widely recognized as a part of its appeal. Now that the commotion attending the opening of Episode One has settled down, it is a good time to reflect on the implications of the tale for those interested in the life of the soul.

Early in the film, a spacecraft speeds through the darkness between planets. Two Jedi Knights are on their way to help in a crisis. The call to adventure is similar in all the Star Wars movies because it matches experiences that are known to the audience. The events that cause us to develop strengths often begin as bad news. Something calls us to solve a problem or survive an ordeal, and through this difficult process we find that we are capable of more than we thought.

It is now familiar movie lore that George Lucas draws heavily on the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell in developing his series. As a result, the intergalactic sagas include mythic quests for initiation, so it is not difficult to read the episodes as wisdom tales. Key insights into the meaning of human experience are clearly present. If we look at the films through a symbolic lens, the life lessons are abundant.

The key characters in this film include nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker, a slave on an insignificant planet. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn is the commanding presence of the film. His youthful apprentice is Obi-Won Kenobi, not yet a full-fledged Jedi Knight. Queen Amidala is the resourceful teenaged ruler of the planet Naboo, which is under siege.

As before, the Force is a central element in the adventure and is what makes the Star Wars films more than well-done science fiction. This mysterious energy is the key to the transcendent magic of the stories. The Jedi describe the Force as an energy field that sustains all living things.

An individual may sense the Force as intuition or something spiritual, beyond individual skill or wisdom. Whether I say I trust my inner voice or use more traditional language, like trusting the Holy Spirit, I am listening for something beyond my own calculations. I am trying to tune in to a larger field of energy and knowledge. When a Jedi advises the hero to trust the Force, he is saying that we must not put all our trust in what we can know clearly. There are mysteries and powers that are larger than our knowing and seeing.

The Jedi are the high priests of the Force as well as the noble knights of their time. The Jedi began earlier as a theological and philosophical study group. Only after long consideration of the Force did they take up the idea of fighting for high principles and causes.

When we become attuned to values and energies beyond our immediate practical concerns, the effect on our lives may be enormous. Listening to the voice from deep within can change everything. Quiet pursuits like poetry and meditation can lead to daring action, once you find a calling or become aware of the needs of others. Allowing ourselves to be led by our deepest values can take us in surprising directions.

In Episode One—The Phantom Menace, the threat of war has grown out of economic issues, an eternal motive for conflict. Throughout history, trade issues with enormous financial implications have grown into deadly conflict. The story thus begins with a believable situation, since trade disputes and rumblings of war are frequently in our news. Starting in familiar circumstances lets the audience know that extraordinary things can happen in ordinary lives. Episode One opens with a blockade of Queen Amidala’s planet and a threat of invasion.

The heroic man or woman in an initiatory adventure is an ordinary person. The event that launches a fictional quest is similar to what might happen to us, something that engages us with larger challenges. In our lives, it might be the death of a parent, a divorce, a devastating illness, or a financial disaster. Tragedy often sets a larger story into motion; it is a summons, a call to the quest.

When something devastating happens, we can either collapse and give up on life or we can rise to the challenge.

In the mythic moment, the individual's issues become enmeshed with larger problems. The Jedi get involved as Ambassadors to settle the trade dispute. Along the way, Jedi Master Qui-Gon discovers a gifted boy, Anakin Skywalker, on Tatooine, a dry planet far from the centers of power. The boy and his mother are slaves, owned by the Watto, a hard-edged junk dealer who trades in parts for spacecraft. Anakin pilots a "pod racer," a souped-up flying jalopy in a kind of demolition derby race. Though a little child, he is the only human ever to master the complex art of flying the swift machines.

When Anakin meets Queen Amidala, he learns that he is not the only one with challenges, a whole society is in danger—there are problems larger than his own. His personal circumstances and the larger cause become intertwined as he goes to the threshold of adventure. His connection with the Jedi teachers Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi represents contact with the higher self or inner master. The hero meets these key allies at the threshold moment, the jumping-off point beyond which there is no return.

Heroes come to their adventures with many motivations, so Anakin Skywalker is moving toward several goals simultaneously. He and his mother are slaves, a status that represents universal issues of personal freedom and dignity. The hero may be seeking a transcendent experience—looking for some undiscovered aspect of himself or herself. There may be a wound that requires healing. At some point, allies appear, and a guide with skills, secret lore, and wisdom necessary for the success of the journey.

There is a strong team effort in Episode One—The Phantom Menace. A solitary warrior does not accomplish the mission; the initiatory quest is never a solo journey. The adventure is always a collective effort, contrary to some immature fantasies of personal glory. Part of its lesson is to remember that we are not alone and that our skill or strength by itself will not solve problems. Guides, allies, and animals provide help at every turn; even the pratfall comic character Jar Jar Binks makes a crucial contribution. The seeker discovers that no single person can do the quest alone but that others provide assistance all the way there and back. These stories humble our arrogance.

The hero’s mentors take many forms: an old teacher, a wise enchantress, a mysterious old magician, such as the strange creature Yoda. In Episode One we meet the council of the Jedi Masters, a high lodge of keepers of the wisdom, which is an ancient mythological motif. They oversee initiation into the mysteries.

Gaining that initiation is a challenging process for which the initiate must demonstrate good character. The rashness of youth must be tempered. The parallel in ordinary life may be as mundane as gaining the approval of a driving examiner to get a driver's license or as arduous as completing training to become a Marine. It might be as extensive as completing education to be ordained as a priest, certified as a teacher, or licensed as a professional. It may be election to high office.

Queen Amidala and the Jedi Knights are the central aristocratic figures. The central role nobility plays in all the Star Wars movies is worth reflection. It hints at the romance with aristocracy that has long been a part of American popular culture and is particularly a staple in science fiction and fantasy. The fascination with aristocracy goes beyond images of privilege or luxury. Aristocracy is etymologically and symbolically "the rule of the best," the best within us.

Psychologically we long for our own inner nobility. The qualities of character and purpose associated with archetypal aristocracy are often lacking in an overly egalitarian and endlessly practical age. The sense of duty and high character shown by aristocratic figures can inspire us to reach for our own inner nobility.

The story depicts how important it is to forge alliances with others. The characters in the story can also be seen as symbolizing various energies within ourselves. We each have many personalities, and these various aspects of ourselves have to learn to get along if we are to accomplish anything. Their competing interests tug and pull us in different directions—to be brave, or afraid, or loving are all features of a single individual's psychology. The story shows how to accomplish a working integration of an inner life. The tasks of learning to relate well with others and developing a well-balanced inner world are two sides of the same coin.

Initiatory adventures often include a confrontation between good and evil. The task we face is larger than we are, but in accomplishing it, we discover that we can survive ordeals we did not think we could endure. In the process, we discover how to work with our allies and to master the many conflicting elements within ourselves. Most important, we learn to trust the Force. We find how to stay in the flow of a wisdom that is larger than ourselves.

At some point, the individual's actions must become synchronized with universal forces, a synchronization that eases life's basic loneliness. You are enmeshed in a larger purpose. You are meant to be in a certain place and fill a particular role. You are being yourself, truly and entirely for the first time. You have energies that you never knew about before. Joseph Campbell described what happens if you follow your bliss, accept your calling. Doors will open where you did not know doors existed, help comes when you did not even know you needed help, and things that would have been impossible in the past become possible.

Because the Star Wars stories are set in the future on fictional planets, we are able to get beyond the naturalism of most movies. Joseph Campbell thought naturalism was the death of art. If the stories and characters are too realistic, it is more difficult to see the metaphors that carry the deeper messages of the story. But when a story takes place in outer space, the audience knows they are watching a work of the imagination. That is a key reason that the Star Wars series conveys wisdom to a degree that is unusual for a Hollywood movie.

Campbell believed that Lucas understood his books and rendered the key metaphors in contemporary terms. The central modern issue is whether we are going to let the machine control us, and Campbell's notion of the machine includes the corporate state. To be sure, one can gain a measure of power by becoming machine-like. Doing so is a temptation that is hard to resist, but to be fully human, we must not expend all of our energies as part of a larger machine. The alternative is to listen to the still small voice within.

Our core choices and values have to come from inside—then we have to realize them in the world. A mythic story shows that we must find our own footing as individuals, and also how we can return from separation to make a contribution. If the story showed only how to rebel against conventionality, it would leave us as hermits or lost souls. The greater challenge is to rejoin the community, but on new terms.

Knowing the other Star Wars films, we are aware that the boy, Anakin Skywalker, will someday become the evil Darth Vader. His future exemplifies another universal theme. The seeker has to face the dark side within. Every hero is also part villain, a fact that shows the limits of dualistic thinking by which one character is good and another evil. Resolution requires that warring factions within the individual pull together, with the light side of the Force dominant.

The mythic imagination is essentially a template that can be endlessly reworked. The Star Wars episodes are similar to each other, yet George Lucas is not making the same movie over and over again. He is aware that one must go through many initiatory cycles to master many lessons. In each cycle, the initiate is able to accomplish something new. Each effort is successful because it is in the service of a calling, and when we are motivated by higher causes, we can do amazing things. After each cycle, the seeker returns with significant new psychological integration. We must gain access to the attributes of both genders, find a way to be aligned with the forces of nature, develop connections with the best of allies, and share with others.

At the end of each initiatory adventure, there is a great celebration. The many characters present at these celebrations symbolize different stages of life and the various aspects of an individual who is growing more fully aware of the many energies within. The traveler comes back home with something to show for all the effort. This prize is a boon, elixir, or blessing. It can be new wisdom, a skill, or an insight of great value to the historical moment. The challenge then is to pass it around. The boon does not belong to the adventurer alone. It is for everyone.

The seeker returns to an honored place in the community. Ultimately, being true to oneself includes being useful to others. The sense of fulfillment, of identity and role, is extraordinary at that point. Such a life moves with amazing energy. The Force is then truly with us.

George Lucas on Star Wars

With Star Wars I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs. I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today....


The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed....


If people were really to sit down and honestly look at themselves and the consequences of their actions, they would try to live their lives a lot differently. One of the main themes in The Phantom Menace is of organisms having to realize they must live for their mutual advantage....


I’m telling an old myth in a new way. Each society takes that myth and retells it in a different way....The motif is the same. It’s just that it gets localized....


I am dealing with core issues that were valid 3,000 years ago and are still valid today, even though they’re not in fashion.


—from an interview with Bill Moyers in Time magazine,
April 26, 1999



Psychologist Jonathan Young, PhD, assisted Joseph Campbell and was founding curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and Library. His recent book is SAGA: Best New Writings on Mythology. He now trains counselors internationally in the uses of mythic stories through the Center for Story and Symbol in Santa Barbara. Email: young@folkstory.com; Web site: folkstory.com